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If scuba isn’t your thing but you love the simplicity of snorkelling then free diving might just be for you. Free diving or breath-hold diving had been around for eons — it existed long, long before scuba. Traditionally it was a way of collecting sponge and fishing, but free diving has evolved into a competition sport and an alternative to scuba for exploring the underwater world. Being a major centre of underwater exploration, naturally you can learn to free dive on Ko Tao.
More people are choosing to free dive regardless of whether they have scuba dived before or not. I think it’s because it’s a physical challenge, but also because it’s calmer and quieter than scuba and less restrictive due needing fewer bits of equipment. Clearly your dives are shorter, but the marine life isn’t as scared of you and you certainly feel less awkward and cumbersome in the water. The first course is typically three days and on Ko Tao costs around 5,500 baht.
Learning to extend your breath hold time is key to the length of your dive time and will involve practising both relaxing and breathing techniques. You will put this into practice in the water and then practice the different dive skills and disciplines.
Learning to free dive is obviously different to scuba and you should look for different things in your choice of school and course.
Firstly, the centre or school should have somewhere quiet for you to practice relaxing and breathing. Secondly, a good instructor is crucial to any positive learning experience and this is super important for learning to free dive. They do not need to be a free diving record holder but they should be actively diving and have a calm demeanour. Meet with your potential teacher and get a feel for their personality.
Next, find out how many students are on a course. When free diving you use a buoy on the surface so that you can rest after a dive and hold onto it while breathing and relaxing in preparation for a dive. Any more than four students on one buoy becomes uncomfortable and not ideal for a relaxing preparation. Also remember that courses will not take longer because there are more in the group, it will simply mean less practice time and fewer dives.
Have a look at the equipment too. It’s simpler for free diving, with a low-profile mask, simple snorkels and long bladed fins, but check to see whether these are in good condition.
You should learn dynamic, which is horizontal underwater swimming, and free immersion, which is a head-first dive where the diver pulls herself down a weighted rope to depth. This then builds to constant weight, which is a dive started with a duck dive, where the diver uses fins for further propulsion to depth. Make sure your course covers these skills and also that it includes plenty of time to fun dive and put your new skills into practice exploring the reef and marine life.
Incidentally, Red Bull magazine featured a great piece on world-record holding free diver Herbert Nitsch last month — it’s worth a read.
By Ayesha Cantrell
Last updated on 11th December, 2014.